Flood Year (dancing girl press, 2009)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?
I’m going to go ahead and say it: Kristy Bowen (of dancing girl press) is the chapbook queen. So many of the chapbooks that I’ve read and loved have come from dgp. Most memorable among them is Brandi Homan’s Two Kinds of Arson. I want to say it’s the first chapbook I ever read, but that’s probably not true. It is the first chapbook I read that changed the way I think about poetry (and poetry collections). Though I submitted Flood Year elsewhere, I always knew that I wanted to be a dancing girl author.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
I think “Because Someone Called Amy a Slut” is the oldest poem in the chapbook. I remember that it came from a writing prompt in one of Mary Biddinger’s Saturday morning MFA classes, Poetry of the Body. The prompt, “Write a poem that contains a birthday, a TV sitcom, and a fist fight,” jogged a memory and the poem was born. It came out quick and easy, and I made very few changes in subsequent drafts (though I’ve agonized over what caliber the gun should be, and am still not sure I got it right).
What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?
My chapbook is my earliest work–other than those achingly sentimental poems I scribbled in notebooks in high school and college–so I can’t really answer the second part of this question. As to the first: Flood Year tells the coming-of-age story of Stella, a working class kid with really bad taste in men. It’s also about Stella’s cousin, an unnamed speaker who has an unhealthy attachment to Stella and who struggles to understand herself outside of Stella’s shadow. Over a backdrop of Rust Belt towns and dive bars, the girls explore themselves, each other, and the people they love.
How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?
I’m a constant fiddler when I’m putting a manuscript together. I start by gathering all the poems I’ve written and read them one by one. As I’m reading, I remove any poems that don’t seem to fit or aren’t as strong as the others. I take what’s left and spread them out on the floor, a table–whatever’s available–and shuffle them around, looking for connections. Flood Year tells a story, so its primary organization is chronological, but there are some pieces that exist out of time. Those occupied different spaces in different versions until I felt like they functioned as connective tissue between more narrative pieces.
The title, Flood Year, comes from a poem called “Valley Rain.” I’m fascinated with weather and found that rain came up again and again in my poems. Flood Year seemed to capture that; I also liked its directness and simplicity.
Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?
Even though I knew I wanted to be a dancing girl author, I submitted to a couple of contests. Luckily, Kristy Bowen snatched it up before anyone else had a chance.
In what ways did your chapbook change between the version you submitted and the final published version? Did you revise, rearrange, or make other changes? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The manuscript didn’t change at all after it was accepted. Kristy and I talked about what I imagined the cover looking like. There was an artist whose work I admired, but we didn’t have any luck getting in touch with her, so Kristy developed a couple of cover images and was kind enough to let me veto any that didn’t match my vision.
What are you working on now? What is your writing practice?
My first full length collection, Some Kind of Shelter, has just been published, so a lot of my energy has been focused on promoting that. I haven’t been writing a lot of poetry the last few years—I’m working on a Ph.D. and find that critical writing and creative writing don’t work too well together for me–but I think that’s about to change. I’m starting work on my creative dissertation, a narrative sequence I’m calling The Bullet In Her Pocket. I’m also working on a series of prose poems that will hopefully be my next chapbook. Each one is a somewhat surreal vignette of a person I once had a crush on.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
I love chapbooks because they can be read in one sitting, so I guess my advice would be something like this: Make the poems in your chapbook speak to each other, build on each other, so that the experience of reading them all together creates a sense of satisfaction and resolution.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
The now famous 20 Little Poetry Projects will always be my favorite prompt.
A question from Karen J. Weyant: If you could have a soundtrack for your chapbook, what songs would be playing?
To get a sense of the soundtrack to Flood Year, imagine a jukebox at a working class bar: a little Top 40, a little country, a little classic rock. Imagine also a drunk girl slipping quarters in to play her favorite love songs between the more crowd-friendly pieces. It would look something like this:
“Better Man” – Pearl Jam
“Piece of My Heart” – Janis Joplin
“I Love This Bar” – Toby Keith
“The Weakness In Me” – Joan Armatrading
“Figured You Out” – Nickelback*
“Jailhouse Rock” – Elvis Presley
“Crazy” – Gnarls Barkley
“A Case of You” – Joni Mitchell**
*I don’t endorse listening to Nickelback, but sometimes it can’t be avoided.
**If you prefer, skip the first seven songs and listen to “A Case of You” on repeat.
A question from Weston Cutter: Did you write this chapbook while listening to anything, or do you listen to anything when you write in general, or is it all silence?
I almost always listen to music when I’m writing. During the time that I was writing these poems, I listened to a lot of Jack Johnson, Indigo Girls, Ace of Base (I’d explain why if I could), Billy Joel, and Regina Spektor.
A question from Travis Mossotti: What do you find to be the most difficult and/or rewarding part about the writing, revising, publishing, and promotion process?
As I’m writing and revising, I read my poems out loud over and over again. I think my favorite moment is when I read a draft out loud and know the poem is complete.
A question from Curtis L. Crisler: Did your chapbook start out as something larger whose parts you made into a chapbook? Or, if it started out as self-contained, is it something that can be changed into a full manuscript?
The poems in Flood Year were written as part of my MFA thesis, a book-length collection called In the Weeds. Stella, the primary persona in both manuscripts, took up a huge amount of space in my brain, and I knew she needed her own home. Flood Year is that home. In the Weeds didn’t survive as a manuscript, but Stella (and the chapbook she lives in) will appear again in my forthcoming collection Some Kind of Shelter.
What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
If your chapbook was scratch and sniff, what would its scent be?
Sara Tracey is the author of Some Kind of Shelter (Misty Publications, 2013) and Flood Year (dancing girl press, 2009). Her work has recently appeared in Vinyl Poetry, The Collagist, Harpur Palate, Passages North, and elsewhere. She has studied at the University of Akron, the North East Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA), and at the University of Illinois at Chicago Program for Writers. Originally from Ohio, she has lived in Chicago since 2008.
Stella Takes Me to Tucson
She drives a rented SUV down dirt roads. It’s monsoon season and rock wash tests the frame, her steady hand. Twenty feet ahead, eyes hover in headlight glare. Cattle. Here, fences disappear into ditches, the livestock force neighbors to share. She tells me they kill mescal, leave the stalks to wither and burn in the sun. To trade cacti for pine, learn new shadows, new stars: I understand this is difficult, understand landscape and self can sometimes melt together. When one is wrong, how can the other hold firm? I ache for green, for soft grass beneath my feet, a place where footprints can’t be lost in the wind.
I ask where we’re going. To Lalo’s. I think this is a man she used to love, the agave farmer who taught her to shoot tequila when she was fourteen, fed her fresh avocado still warm from the sun, but neon tells me her story isn’t true and now I don’t know who she is. How many lies have I believed? She parks, leaves windows open, goes inside. I stay behind, listen for bats, coyotes, someone crying. Dial an old number and whisper, I miss black ice. There are more ghosts here, I know. This dirt is made of bones.